A message to the future of Appalachia

In late February, I gave a talk at West Virginia University. I was honored to be invited and felt that it was important to directly address young people for two specific reasons. The first is that JD Vance, who is known for many things that are the opposite of youth empowerment, spoke at the university a week before me. The second is that I came to West Virginia in the middle of its historic strike. Education and public workers cited many reasons for their collective action, but one that wasn’t receiving wider purchase in the national conversation about the strike at that time was the deep conviction teachers’ had for envisioning a better future for their students. I wanted them to know their solidarity was seen, and felt. Jessica Salfia, an English teacher, wrote from that perspective here.

As you may know, a small cohort within the Appalachian Studies Association invited JD Vance to speak at our most recent conference and participated in the abuse of young members who stood in dissent. There are many things I want to and will likely say about that, but for the moment, I am going share part of the remarks I made at West Virginia University. For them. For us. For the future.

My book is called What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia and people like to speculate who the “you” is in the title. Is it JD Vance, his fans and supporters? And they’re not wrong – that is definitely the direction in which the book started. But as it developed, I started to see that the “you” was me and that I was writing against an experience where people with more power tried to tell me what I should think and feel about my history and identity. They were happy to tell me what I was getting wrong about Appalachia, and usually the thing I was getting most wrong, according to them, was that there was any hope for the future.

“Coal is dead. Just move. I hate that you’re stuck there.  If it wasn’t for welfare there wouldn’t be any signs of life in the mountains.” And so on. But I believe that within our history we have the tools to help us move forward. I see this when I look out at rallies of teachers and public employees wearing red bandanas, connecting their actions not only to the 1990 teachers’ strike but further back, to the mine wars. And what I hope to leave you with is a sense that the heritage we share isn’t some ridiculous ethnic component and it isn’t about how long your people have lived here, and it isn’t about how you make your cornbread, although now I fear assassination or at least a decline in book sales for saying that. Our heritage is the way we have shared and supported each other in struggle – in the past, in the present, and in the future, here at home and beyond our borders. If we did not have the power to create change, we would not be the heirs to a 150 year old propaganda industry designed to tell us and the world we are powerless.

You know, people ask me now, all the time, what it means to be Appalachian. If it’s not a mediocre memoir, if it’s not dependency narratives, if it’s not Scots-Irish heritage, if it’s not black and white poverty photos – what is it? And I like to decline to say because I think self-definition is power and if I tell you what or who you are I have taken some power from you and I do not want to do that. I want you to ask these hard questions of yourself and get more powerful for the work that must be done. But I can tell you what flashes through my mind when I’m asked that question.

There’s an old documentary called Harlan County USA, directed by Barbara Kopple, about the miners’ strike against Duke Energy in the 1970s. Many of you will know it. Barbara was a very young woman from New York when she started making this documentary but grew close to her subjects because they were all in danger – their fates became connected. A strikebreaker indiscriminately firing a gun into a crowd was just as likely to hit her or one of her crew as a miner. And there’s a very important scene in this documentary – a blink and you’ll miss it scene – where there’s a physical altercation on the picket line. And what you can hear but not so much see is a breathless Barbara Kopple running toward that altercation and throwing her big boom mic between the strike breakers and her crew and the miners. In other words, I think being Appalachian is running toward your friends when they need you. So here I am.

Image by Robert Gumpert via the Appalshop archive.

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Experimental journalism project Report for America announces Appalachian pilot program

Report for America, an experimental project supported by GroundTruth and Google News Lab, announced today the creation of a pilot program to recruit and install “top, emerging” journalists in “rural Appalachia.” First conceptualized in 2015 and billed as a “a new model for saving local journalism” that borrows from “national and community service programs,” Report for America is currently accepting applications for three positions with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and the Kentucky Herald-Leader respectively, with the latter announcing a complimentary plan to re-open a reporting bureau in Pikeville.

As a centralized national organization eventually supporting journalists across the country, Report for America will subsidize the cost of recruiting and training journalists with the expectation that these journalists commit to a period of service of at least two years (one year for the pilot program) in an under-served area. Local employment partners are responsible for kicking in a smaller percentage of the wage-subsidy as well as supervising daily assignments and contributing to the cultural literacy of a new generation of journalists.

Sponsors present Report for America as an antidote to parachute journalism, one that will give local newsrooms better control of regional coverage and in the process help restore “trust in journalism at a time when it is in deep crisis,” according to GroundTruth CEO Charles Sennott. It’s clear that there’s an urgent need to collapse the divide in local and national reporting on Appalachia. When the Columbia Journalism Review reported in July 2017 that not a single outside journalist attended the West Virginia-based New Story 2017 media conference despite persistent outreach, the snub surprised few here. I’m happy to acknowledge that Report for America has correctly diagnosed a problem, but the larger question is whether or not their planned solutions are as original and sustainable as presented.

Continue reading “Experimental journalism project Report for America announces Appalachian pilot program”

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia now available to pre-order!

Appalachia-FINAL-311x450My book taking on Trump Country narratives, J.D. Vance, and the amnesia surrounding Appalachia’s progressive side is now available to pre-order through the wonderful folks at Belt. Place your order before November and you’ll automatically receive a signed copy. Details here, including contact for advance copies, media requests, and larger distribution orders.

No, Laurie Lin, I did not get Trump elected by talking about white nationalism in Appalachia

Earlier last week, I made a series of tweets about white nationalism in Appalachia. It’s been almost a month since white nationalists rallied in Pikeville, Kentucky and while media coverage of the event was significant it was also understandably superficial given the frequency with which such things are now happening. Take a look at the coverage of the event, and you’ll find many individuals in the region asking, with pain, “Why are people like this targeting us?” To be sure, one answer lies in our current political moment and the region’s demographics, but there’s another answer to be found in how Appalachia fits into the white nationalist worldview. The tweets I made briefly explain this, using both recent and older examples of white nationalist ideology. The very short version is that, for some white nationalists, Appalachia is a source, or should be a source, of uncontaminated white heritage. In order to forward that belief, white nationalists often cite an exaggeration of the cultural and genetic dominance of the Scots-Irish in Appalachia. The quote I used to begin my series of tweets, for example, shows a white nationalist group proclaiming “Appalachia is White, Scots-Irish and proud, don’t run from your heritage, celebrate it!” last month. If you feel up to it, take a stroll through the online world of white nationalists and you’ll find plenty of distillations of this particular brand of ethno-nationalism.

Continue reading “No, Laurie Lin, I did not get Trump elected by talking about white nationalism in Appalachia”

On the politics of emotions in coal country

Over at Slate this week, science editor Susan Matthews takes New York Times daily podcast host Michael Barbaro to task for choking up during an interview segment with a retired coal miner from Kentucky. Coal country is back in the news with feeling this week after Trump signed an executive order to dismantle much of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Although this new order affects environmental standards nation-wide, much of the focus both from the White House and national media has been on Appalachia’s coal industry. I discussed this development with WNYC’s On the Media program here. With a similar intent, the New York Times selected a voice from Appalachia for its segment and included a former coal miner from Harlan, Kentucky, on their program. During the interview, Barbaro’s voice breaks several times with emotion after questions turn from environmental regulations and politics to the realities of coal mining and life in coal communities. For Matthews, this is irresponsible and unethical journalism. I’m certainly interested in Barbaro’s reaction, but it’s Matthews’ reflection on this segment that troubles me.

According to Matthews, “it’s a miraculous 10 minutes of radio, ending with Barbaro crying while he realizes he doesn’t really understand coal country at all, and perhaps if he just visited a mine he would have an entirely different perspective on the situation.” Matthews faults Barbaro for not challenging his subject’s views on the coal industry more forcefully, finding his line of questioning and emotional response not only dangerous but ultimately cruel for “allowing” the miner to believe his myths about the promise of better days. “I’m sorry, but what can living in a coal town teach you about whether coal is actually damaging to the atmosphere?” she asks as a means to de-legitimize the tone and content of the interview.

Matthews’ piece omits two key facts about the interview. The first is that Barbaro’s 10-minute segment with a miner was prefaced by a thorough conversation with an industry expert reporting on the overall financial health of the coal industry, the larger ebb and flow of energy markets, and Trump’s recent executive order. The second and most heinous omission is that Barbaro’s subject was suffering from Stage 3 Black Lung, a condition that I presume made the interview difficult on a number of levels. The interview is punctuated by moments where the miner has difficulty breathing and providing longer responses and the pair discuss the condition, although the miner is reluctant to dwell on the fact that he is critically ill. In short, broadcast of flawed beliefs aside, Matthews is shaming a reporter for displaying emotion during an interview with a man who has a terminal and very obviously debilitating illness without mentioning that fact.

Continue reading “On the politics of emotions in coal country”

There’s a better life and you dream about it, don’t you?

Despite the absence of posts here, I’ve been working 9-to-5. I wanted to round-up a few links to my writing and share from the responses, but first let me quickly say we’re in countdown mode to wrapping up things here and heading home. This is great news.

I got back into the swing of things after the New Year with a piece for Belt Magazine, “To the Rust Belt, Solidarity from Appalachia.” The Women’s March on Washington inspired sister marches throughout the world and I reflected on those that took place in Appalachia while wondering if these acts of solidarity might be enough to turn the narrative tide about Trump Country. Unfortunately, based on the pieces I’m about to link, this was wishful thinking.

I took a break to attend the Appalachian Studies Conference in Blacksburg, Virginia, but came back with an essay about the political uses of whiteness in Appalachia for the 100 Days in Appalachia Project, a multimedia catalogue of how the region is responding during Trump’s first 100 days in office. Appalachia is often coded as “all-white” despite increasing regional diversity. I ask why that myth persists and how it serves historic and contemporary politics.

Finally, I published two responses to a number of recent high-profile articles written by progressive condemning West Virginians, specifically, and “hillbillies” more generally. These reached a wider audience and came with a wider range of responses, and I’d like to highlight a very typical response I’ve received. But first, my longer essays are here in Belt Magazine and here in Salon. Both, although different, raise a question that runs through a lot of my writing: why are progressives outside the region obsessive about Trump voters in coal country when there are more significantly populated Trump enclaves in their backyards?

In disputing the answers I give in these essays, folks often raise this point, although in sometimes less polite ways. Below, from a Twitter exchange.

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This point – that the electoral college vote is supreme – is not technically incorrect. But, my work is premised on a very simple push-back: if you are acting in good faith, it’s more righteous to hold individuals accountable for their racism and other harmful attitudes than the design of the electoral college. If my neighbor is a bigot and is starved out of civic engagement according to progressive hillbilly divorce fantasies, what does he become when he moves to New York and is your neighbor? It is even possible to develop an outlook that does both. In other words, it is appropriate to grant individuals their specific weight in the body politic while conceding that none of us are weightless. Skewed pieces about Appalachia written by media elites often do none of these things and, of course, I often write about why.

Get up, stand up: a quick update from the long-haul

I spent the inauguration eve alone in a hotel during a business trip listening to Florence Reece. Many people understandably spent last weekend thinking about their children and the world they will inherit, but my mind was on women like Florence. History remembers Florence Reece as the spirit of the 1931 Harlan miners’ strike whose folk song “Which Side Are You On?” transcended as a modern civil rights anthem. To me, Florence is a woman from Sharps Chapel, Tennessee – born thirty years before my grandmother into the same community. I held Florence close not only because of her strength, but because she went home. She died in Knoxville at the age of eighty-six at the hospital where my grandmother worked, their paths only ever crossing in my imagination.

Saturday we learned that thousands of individuals across Appalachia participated in national Women’s March activities: Pikeville, Roanoke, Jonesborough, Knoxville, Charleston, Morganton, Lexington, Asheville, Chattanooga – we saw you. We also saw our friends in the Rust Belt and across the Plains take to their communities and in the process challenged divisive narratives about who or what is “Trump Country.” Thank you to all and especially to those who marched in Knoxville. I’m sure Dolly approved.

Speaking of challenging narratives, I’m happy to announce that I’m partnering with Belt Publishing to write a new book about America’s recent fascination with the people and problems of Appalachia. Yes, this is where I come for Hillbilly Elegy. This partnership is a good reminder that regional publishers are just as frustrated with local myth-making as writers and related creatives. One form of resistance is elevating voices and perspectives from our regions as opposed to about our regions, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of just that.

This means that I might write a little less here for the next few months, but feel free to reach out to me at elizabeth.catte [at] gmail.com if you’d like to connect. Of all the many things that the election means, for my family it’s confirmation that we can do our best work from within the region and we can’t wait to get back home. If you have a project or cause you’d like to discuss that might benefit from the help of a couple of historians and policy wonks, do get in touch.

For now, take good care.

The votes are in – an update to “Appalachia as Trump Country”

Last month, I wrote an essay about the media’s overuse of Appalachia – and particularly West Virginia – as a mythic Trump Country during the election cycle. I used the word ‘mythic’ not to deny the existence of Appalachian Trump supporters, but to instead underscore that writers and photographers from prestige outlets relied on mythic qualities of Appalachia and its working class to give their pieces traction and to shore up an emerging narrative about economic anxiety and the white working class.  This strategy, I concluded, was historically consistent with the broad “othering” of Appalachia as a place that represents the failures of American progress and helped explain why writers preferred to profile Appalachian Trump supporters as opposed to Trump supporters in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Washington, or other geographies that might complicate that narrative.

McDowell County, West Virginia, received the most press attention and I’d like to quickly revisit my original essay now that we know how McDowell County voted. But first, let’s recap the highlights of “McDowell County as Trump Country.”

Continue reading “The votes are in – an update to “Appalachia as Trump Country””

For the good of the poor and common people: What Hillbilly Elegy gets wrong about Appalachia and the working class

Over at the New Republic, Sarah Jones has a blistering take on J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the social analysis of Appalachia’s “forgotten” white working class masquerading as a regional memoir and current favored text for understanding the inner lives of economically precarious white voters. Her piece works better than most because it attends not only to the central themes and lessons of Elegy, but also to the media oversaturation of Vance as a white working class whisperer and his eagerness to embrace the role of political analyst during and after the election.

From local papers to the national press, from Fox News to NPR, from the lecterns of state schools and business schools, Vance has served up “straight talk” about the white working class that both conservatives and liberals are eager to consume. For conservatives, Vance’s rags-to-riches story – from his broken childhood in rural Ohio and Kentucky to the heights of Silicon Valley’s venture capital world – is confirmation that the American Dream they’re selling works: that through hard work and bootstrapping all is possible, handouts be damned. At the same time, liberals applaud Vance for demonstrating the dangers inherent in what he characterizes a veil of misunderstanding between coastal elites and rural whites. The problem, as Sarah Jones writes, is that the “media class fixated on the spectacle of white trash Appalachia, with Vance as its representative-and-exile” and stopped looking for any other voices or perspectives. If your goal is to rebuild coalitions of working class whites and win back their votes – and this is the angle that Jones covers – it might be time to consult a new expert, or perhaps just actual working class people. I’ll leave that angle to others, but keep reading, because I have a good recommended text.

Continue reading “For the good of the poor and common people: What Hillbilly Elegy gets wrong about Appalachia and the working class”